By Mike Pilosof
Chanute, KS-When all else fails, give the ball to Pierre Johnson and get the heck out of his way.
In the end, the sophomore guard's persistence, sprinkled in with a lights-out defensive performance, paved the way for Garden City's eighth road win of the season.
Johnson finished with just eight points, but hit back-to-back buckets in crunch time, Elvis Harvey and Jamir Thomas combined for 24 points and 22 rebounds, and the Broncbusters polished off a 68-58 victory over Neosho County at Panthers Gymnasium Wednesday night.
"Our defense was really the story," Head Coach Brady Trenkle said. "We've been working on it for a while, and it has gotten better."
Trenkle's pressure half-court, man-to-man, in-your-face defense, held the Panthers to a season-low 27 percent shooting while limiting them to 6-of-31 from three-point land.
"When we play defense like that, we are tough to beat," Trenkle said. "It sparks our offense."
And it ignited Johnson, who for most of the night could not buy a basket. Still, the sophomore found other ways to keep himself engaged, like helping shutdown the conference's third-leading scorer in Austin Downing, who finished with just 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 38 minutes.
"We did a tremendous job of team defense on Downing," Trenkle said. "He's such a good player, and we were able to slow him down."
With the game teetering after the Panthers sliced a 13-point deficit down to four with 7:19 to go, Johnson took command. First, the sophomore beat Luol Dung off the dribble and banked home a right-handed layup. After a defensive stop, Johnson put his head down again, this time absorbing contact from Dung as he finished with two hands at the basket. Following a third-straight stop, Johnson drove again, and even after the ball slid off the front rim, Harvey was there for a monster two-handed flush, capping off a 6-0 surge that put Garden City (17-11, 13-11) back up 10, 52-42 with 5:05 left.
"I know he struggled shooting, but Pierre had that look in his eye," Trenkle said. "And he kept looking over at the bench every time down. He was really attentive to what coach (Patrick) Nee was telling him."
Johnson missed his first nine shots of the game, but all anyone will remember are the last two he made, which stopped the Panthers' run in its tracks, and helped end a seven-minute field-goal drought.
"It's good to see a smile on these guys' faces," Trenkle said afterwards. "They know they can do it, but when you lose a couple of games in a row, it messes with your confidence. But we have a lot of work to do."
The Panthers made one last ditch effort to stay in the game, and when Tevin Downing knocked down two free throws, the Broncbuster lead was down to five. But Jeff Otchere answered with a hook, Harvey hit two free throws; then followed with a three-point play, and Johnson hit one freebie to finish off an 8-0 tear that stretched the lead to 13, 60-47 with 1:56 to play.
"We need to start feeling good about ourselves heading into the region tournament," Trenkle said. "We just have to keep fighting."
In the first half, Garden City only trailed for a grand total of 30 seconds. But Otchere changed that with a ferocious two-handed stuff, Russhard Cruickshank and Theo Holloway drained back-to-back 3-pointers, and Garden City had a seven-point lead nine minutes into the contest. They led by as many as 13 after Cruickshank hit another 3 with 2:36 left in the half before taking a nine-point lead into the intermission.
Harvey finished with 13 points and was 7-for-7 at the free throw line for Garden City, who won for the second straight season in Chanute. Otchere added 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, Thomas notched his eighth double-double of the season with 11 points and 13 boards, and Cruickshank chipped in 10.
Dung scored 12 points including a fantastic left-handed, power slam that fueled a 14-5 run in the second half for the Panthers, who lost for the eighth time in their last 10 games. Montrell Dixson had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Next up: Garden City vs. Colby-Saturday, Feb. 24-4 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app